More than Peanuts: George Washington Carver and Tom Huston (Part 1)
We are celebrating Black History Month with a four-part series on the relationship between George Washington Carver and Tom Huston. A new book by Edith Powell was released last year on their unlikely partnership. Today, we are starting with the short A Reader's Note at the beginning of the book by Bert Hitchcock, Professor Emeritus, Auburn University to set the stage for what we will be exploring over the next few weeks.
SOURCE: More than Peanuts: The Unlikely Partnership of Tom Huston and George Washington Carver by Edith Powell, 2022.
Once upon a time, in the Deep, and deeply segregated, South of the United States, there were two men. Edith Powell has found an extraordinary story to tell. Both the story itself and the circumstances of its discovery are, in some respects, mythic. The relationship of Tom Huston and George Washington Carver is historical fact, however, and its full narration truly inspiring. Born in the 1800s, Carver being the older by about twenty-five years, both of these men cut a broad swath through their respective callings in the modern twentieth century. Both were persons of exceptional intellect, energy, perseverance, and vision. Each stood out impressively among his contemporaries – a veritable Olympian. Or if not superhuman, clearly “a man among men,” as the old dated saying goes. Deservedly (as this book illustrates), Carver’s renown has endured. A figure of almost mythic stature, he holds a firm place in the American pantheon. Relatively, the famed reputation of “Tom’s Toasted Peanuts” was short-lived. Tom Huston, however, more than merits renewed recognition for his individual personal accomplishments, which included but were not limited to the vital, opportunity-making role he played in Carver’s life.
If not quite so classically mythic, how the facts of the entire Huston-Carver story came to light is at least the stuff of popular wishful legend: the unexpected discovery of great riches in some long-ignored place. What may be found at the bottom of that old dusty, musty trunk in a cobwebbed attic, for instance. In this case there were old letters in dusty archives, but not the single breath-sucking item of a bag of gold or lost poem or unknown brilliant book manuscript. It took Edith Powell to fit many letters and artifacts together and realize the historic treasure that existed there. What began between two men, never having met in person, as a consulting arrangement business deal grew into a remarkable mutually advantageous, mutually respectful, widely consequential partnership. Born out of Huston’s recognition that greater scientific knowledge was needed in order to improve the commercial production and profitability of his company, Huston’s arrangement with Carver certainly accomplished his goal as well as benefiting Carver – and ultimately many other people. Although Histon personally would lose control of his flourishing peanut enterprise in 1932, beneficiaries of the original two-person agreement would grow greatly in extent and number. Significant scientific knowledge was advanced, and a panoply of institutional, professional, social, and personal gains was achieved. Agricultural research and cooperative Extension services on the national, state, and local levels profited directly, for example, and lives of struggling farm families were improved. The effects were, indisputably, worldwide, still in global evidence today economically and otherwise.
There was as well – and this is what I am most struck by – deep genuine friendships developed in the wake of Carver’s inspiring work – transformative change in individuals who found themselves (sometimes quite reluctantly) interacting personally and professionally with “the Doctor.” More people should learn the “lesson,” one White businessman wrote to Carver, that “the man within is greater than his skin”: “I will always consider you one of my best friends.” During a time in national and regional American history known more for extreme, negative, often violent racial disconnection, one obscure two-person venture into interracial cooperation, originally an exercise of good business judgement in the face of strong social taboo, had unusually bountiful fruition. More than Peanuts is, then, a remarkable story of a pair of remarkable men, individuals of different races but shared humanity, integrity, courage, and good will. I am reminded of the starkly self-descriptive title of a nationally published 1936 book by Alabama author James Saxon Childers: A Novel about a White Man and a Black Man in the Deep South. Edith Powell’s well-researched book is not a novel, is not fiction.
NEXT WEEK: We will start at the beginning of their story and the development of the plan the two men put together for success. We hope you will join us!